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POPE/ Ivereigh: Francis calls new-style synod to boost the family

Pope Francis has convened a Synod of Bishops for October 2014 on the theme of the family, including the difficult question of communion and the divorced and remarried. By AUSTEN IVEREIGH

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Pope Francis has convened a Synod of Bishops for October 2014 on the theme of "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation." The decision was taken at the end of a two-day meeting, attended by Francis, of the Synod's permanent council, now led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri. The Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ said Francis was interested in looking at the "anthropological theme" that dealt with "the human person and the family in the light of the Gospel". But the thorny topic of the divorced and remarried being barred from the Sacraments will also be dealt with, as well as the related question of marriage annulments. The synod will also discuss pressures such as cohabitation and divorce and the state redefining marriage in the name of equality.

Synods of Bishops normally take place every three to four years in October, bringing about 300 bishops and other participants to Rome for three weeks of speeches and deliberations leading to recommendations, which the Pope usually responds to a year or so later in a document. Synods are either "ordinary" -- a gathering of the universal church to focus on a particular topic (the last was October 2012, on the topic of the new evangelisation) -- or "special": a gathering of the bishops from a particular region to consider the challenges to that Church (the last of these was the Synod on the Middle East in October 2011).

But next year's will be an "extraordinary general session" of the Synod, which according to the Code of Canon Law is held to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution.” This will be only the third "extraordinary" assembly since Pope Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965. (The first, in 1969, dealt with the role of episcopal conferences; while the second, in 1985, was on the 20th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, and led to the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

An extraordinary synod is shorter and smaller. The participants will be restricted to the presidents of bishops' conferences, patriarchs, heads of the Vatican’s dicasteries, and the superiors of religious orders -- about half the number of those taking part in the ordinary or special assemblies.

Pope Francis, who was relator or chair of the 2001 synod, wants the assembly to be an instrument of effective governance of the universal Church, as opposed to its current format, which is more of an unwieldy debating chamber. Synod reform was one of the major topics discussed by the Pope's council of cardinals last week, which Cardinal Baldisseri attended.

Communion for the remarried

The Pope has also been open about wanting to tackle the difficult pastoral question of excluding the divorced and remarried from communion, telling reporters on his plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July that the next synod's exploration of a "deeper pastoral care of marriage" would include the question of divorced and remarried Catholics. He also said church law governing marriage annulments "has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage."